As above-board as a Monégasque yachting trip

THE COUNTRY’S opposition now has to its credit another toothless attempt to sack a minister for what it called a complete failure to observe political ethics.

THE COUNTRY’S opposition now has to its credit another toothless attempt to sack a minister for what it called a complete failure to observe political ethics.

Parliamentary no-confidence motions have now degenerated into a theatre of the absurd which offers a stage for politicians to air their colourful tapestry of frustrations, conspiracy theories, blame games and in some cases pure narcissism.

While the no-confidence tool, allowing for the possibility of having a minister sacked by the will of parliament, is a crucial one, the current distribution of power in the Slovak parliament and the poisonous relations between the ruling coalition and the opposition mean it has become merely a stage for rhetoric, albeit colourful.

But these no-confidence debates often reveal the misery of the political stage in its full depth and breadth.

In a normally-functioning polity all the parliamentary melodrama could have been avoided, since Prime Minister Robert Fico would have accepted the resignation of Finance Minister Ján Počiatek, finally and half-heartedly offered after much prodding.

Počiatek, an unconventional minister who has appeared in a Slovak TV soap opera to popularise the euro, has been roasted by the media for meeting the boss of financial group J&T under unconventional conditions in a rather unconventional place: aboard the group’s private yacht, in Monaco.

The minister’s first defence - that he is just a political greenhorn and had not realised that the meeting might present a problem - made his boss Fico angry. But for the wrong reasons.
“Why should someone ostentatiously show up at a yacht in Monaco,” Fico said on June 23, as quoted by the Sme daily. “I mind this ostentatious conduct. This is the whole problem.”

In fact, the problem far exceeds Počiatek’s “ostentatious showing up.” The problem is that Počiatek’s behaviour lacked transparency and that transparent conduct between businesses and politicians in Slovakia has still not become the norm; instead, opacity is still viewed as a means of survival.

During the parliamentary debate the interior minister accused the former finance minister Ivan Mikloš, who is an MP for the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), of displaying private firms’ logos on his cycling shirt.

The interior minister noted that one firm, CSC, had received a public order worth Sk1.2 billion.
Mikloš has been among the strongest critics of Počiatek’s Monégasque yachting adventures. He also has suggested that a leak of information during the re-setting of the Slovak crown's central parity against the euro in late May could have allowed some financial groups such as J&T to reap significant profits.

SDKÚ’s Ivan Štefanec then drew links between the financial group and the Interior Ministry and some regional Smer leaders, Sme reported.

None of these points made for a more transparent political environment or for healthier business (aside from nutritious tit-bits for the chosen few.)

Of course, the political ethics watchdogs will continue issuing their warnings and calls for clearer rules to govern contacts between politicians and lobbying and financial groups.
But Počiatek’s case and the reactions of top state officials, just like those of J&T itself, show that the time for such house-cleaning has not yet arrived.

There is no innocent partying on the yacht of a financial group for a minister, especially not if the group afterwards calls a special press conference, declares its patriotism, defends the minister and claims that it does not want to be disadvantaged when it comes to taking part in public projects.

The government has had a rather schizophrenic relationship with the business community.
“This government is not a government for businesses, we are a government for people,” Fico told a journalist who asked him on June 24 about businesses complaints about the deteriorating business environment.

The Business Alliance of Slovakia on June 26 published its regular assessment of the business environment in Slovakia, suggesting that things have declined over the past two years.
This corresponds exactly with the period since Fico and his team took over the country. The alliance warned that if the trend continues, the potential for economic growth would decline, according to the ČTK newswire.

It was businesses who showered the Fico team with the most criticism for changes it made to the pension system, to tax rules and to the Labour Code.

They also object to the operation of the courts and corruption in state administration offices.
Fico uses a general formula for brushing aside such concerns: doesn’t Slovakia have one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU? Hasn’t unemployment declined? Hasn’t the Slovak crown continuously strengthened?

Of course the answer to all three questions is “yes”, with the caveat that these achievements are largely due to economic reforms enacted much earlier.

But to the question “has the transparency of politicians’ relationships with businesses improved in Slovakia?” the answer is a resounding "no."

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